Modesto races to the spotlight in new feature from local filmmakers

Clip from The Last Alleycat

Short action scene from The Last Alleycat by Greg and Mark Runnels.
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Short action scene from The Last Alleycat by Greg and Mark Runnels.

They say blood is thicker than water, and for the Runnels brothers, film has had the same effect.

Like the Coen brothers and the Wachowskis, Northern California-based filmmakers Mark and Greg Runnels have used their sibling bond to strong cinematic results. The latest is “The Last Alleycat,” an independently written, produced, filmed and edited project shot mostly in Modesto and the surrounding areas. The 74-minute movie will have its Modesto premiere Thursday, Feb. 2, at the State Theatre.

The project was conceived after the mortgage crisis and economic recession hit the region. About that same time, Mark Runnels, who lives in Modesto, had been getting into the world of alley cat racing, or unsanctioned street races on fixed-gear bicycles. Greg Runnels, who splits his time between Oakland and Modesto, partnered with his brother to work on the film project together from start to finish. The story follows a couple (played Los Angeles actors by David Agranov and Katie Parker) who move from the Bay Area to Modesto after the housing collapse. The husband then finds new purpose in alley cat racing.

“Because of the housing crisis, it became essential to shoot here. But Modesto also seems like where a lot of people end up who get priced out of the Bay Area. It’s a place for people who still want to achieve that piece of the American dream,” Mark Runnels said. “When people leave the Bay Area, the place they seem to move to is Modesto because Modesto has the most culture.”

The brothers filmed 80 percent of the movie in Modesto and the surrounding area; the rest was shot in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. They said the ease of shooting in the Central Valley, coupled with the context of the film, made it an easy choice for them to shoot. The film was shot in 2013 and 2014. The post-production lasted through most of 2015. The film premiered last fall at a few film festivals including the Alameda International Film Festival.

The Modesto premiere will be a homecoming show as well as a thank you to the many area businesses and community members who took part in the process. While most of the principal cast was made up of professional actors out of Los Angeles, the 30 or so supporting roles were locally cast. Also, Modesto resident and alley cat racer Brian Weldon makes his acting debut as the chief rival for Agranov’s character, Lucas. The brothers’ small film crew of around half a dozen also were mostly local.

Locales used in the film include scenes on the Virginia Corridor and in downtown Modesto, and restaurants such as Harvest Moon, Brighter Side and others. They also used music by a number of local artists throughout the film, including Grandaddy, the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, A La Lune, Mike Allsup and more.

“We feel like (Modesto) is our studio ranch. People are going to see a lot of Modesto and recognize a lot of Modesto in the film. Also Oakdale and Knights Ferry and a little of Salida,” Mark Runnels said. “We always feel like everyone wants us here and they take pride in people shooting here.”

This is the duo’s second feature; the first was also Modesto-based, their 2005 project “Youthanasia,” a film about youth violence. In the more than a decade that has passed since, the Runnelses said technology has made making a film easier and cheaper. “Youthanasia” had a $100,000 budget, and “The Last Alleycat” cost around $30,000.

In between features the brothers continue to work on other film and commercial projects, as well as short documentaries and their own film festival. The Tenacious Dreams Film Festival in Modesto debuted in 2013 and returned in 2015. They also have their next full-length film in their sights – a project written by Chantelle Tibbs, one of the principal actors in “The Last Alleycat.” It would be the first film the siblings work on that they did not write themselves. Titled “Shrine of Scars,” it would be a psychological thriller.

After its Modesto premiere, “The Last Alleycat” will continue to screen throughout the West Coast. The Modesto screening will include a talk from filmmakers and an after-party at the State Theatre.

“I hope this film really entertains and people are inspired by the story,” Mark Runnels said. “I hope they walk out of the theater with some pride that this was a positive film about the area. I think it presents the Central Valley in a positive light.”

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland

Premiere of ‘The Last Alleycat’

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2

Where: State Theatre, 1307 J St., Modesto

Tickets: $10

Call: 209-527-4697

Online: www.thestate.org